Beyond The Route 66 Centennial

Beyond The Route 66 Centennial

It was an era of hand crank telephones, Model A Fords, and unprecedented economic collapse. The onslaught of the Dust Bowl that would transform families into refugees and prosperous communities into ghost towns was worsening. In 1931 more than 2,200 banks were shuttered and tens of thousands of people lost their savings, their homes, and their businesses. By January of 1932, unemployment had reached 40% in Michigan, and entire families were freezing to death or dying of starvation.

It was against this bleak and hopeless backdrop that Cyrus Avery and the visionaries of the U.S. Highway 66 Association campaigned for the highways paving. They were also fostering development of tourism marketing campaigns as they realized the economic importance of tourism, especially in struggling rural communities. Their first campaign commenced in 1927 with the branding of US 66 as the Main Street of America. In 1931 the association held a convention in Elk City, Oklahoma and the number of attendees was counted in the tens of thousands. The association was quick to seize upon the opportunity that was  the 1932 Summer Olympics that were to be held in Los Angeles, and on July 16 of that year an advertisement appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, inviting Americans to travel the “Great Diagonal Highway” to the games. In spite of the harsh economic conditions, within a week, the Association’s office in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was overwhelmed with requests for information about Route 66, Los Angeles, and the Olympics.

Fast forward to the modern era. Tourism, especially with a Route 66 component, still represents an incredible economic opportunity. That can be exponentially magnified if it is linked to a communities unique attributes such as cultural or heritage sites, experiential opportunities, or ecotourism activities such as mountain biking. With the Route 66 centennial fast approaching, a community that taps into this historic event NOW can reap tremendous rewards all the way to 2026 and beyond.

Surprisingly, only a few communities have tapped into the international fascination with Route 66, and most of these have been content with simply letting the tourists come to them rather actively enticing them. A very rare number of Route 66 communities have managed to sell everything on the hog including the squeal and as a result, have been transformed into destinations. More often than not the marketing of the city as a destination, as a Route 66 community with an array of attractions, is anemic at best, even with a sizable budget. Grass roots initiatives operating behind the scenes become the driving force in towns such as this. This is the case with my adopted hometown of Kingman, Arizona.

Grassroots initiatives have been been the driving force behind the historic district renaissance. And now the city is beginning to assist rather than hinder. After the city’s tourism department failed to capitalize or even develop the Route 66 Walk of Fame that showed such promise, grassroots initiatives spearheaded by the Route 66 Association of Kingman took the lead in honoring the people that have played a key role in the transformation from highway to icon. When the city’s tourism department neglected to build on opportunities derived from initiatives that fostered development of a working relationship with international Route 66 associations, business owners and community leaders launched the Kingman Promotional Initiative. When the city’s tourism office chose to forego receptions for tour groups, media and Route 66 associations representatives, cooperative partnerships were formed to fill the void.

It was the study of the original US Highway 66 Association and their marketing campaigns, and my involvement with these grassroots initiatives in Kingman that led to the development of community education programs as a pilot project for Mohave Community College. And it was these classes which led to the development of a new presentation, Route 66 Dollars & Cents, a condensed version of the college program.

This October, I will be taking the show on the road. I am anxious to share lessons learned, to provide incentive and tools for building strong, effective grassroots initiatives that overcome apathy and complacency, and that foster development of cooperative partnerships. If this program is of interest to your organization or your community, please drop me a note as the travel schedule is being planned at this time.

I will close this out with a few points to ponder. Every community has marketable assets. If you make a community a place that people will want to visit, you make it a place where they will want to live, to raise families, to retire and to open businesses. Apathy, complacency and incompetence can trump a handful of assets. Passionate people armed with knowledge, partners, and leaders with vision can transform a community.

Finding Inspiration In Unexpected Places

Finding Inspiration In Unexpected Places

It has been a week of contrasts. Last weekend I was in

Burbank, Los Angeles, and Pasadena. This week business took me to the original Las Vegas, Tucumcari, and a few points in between. At every stop, in every meeting, in every conversation, and with each presentation made, I found inspiration and was introduced to innovative plans for community development and revitalization. To balance that out I also found ample reason for despondency when meditating on communities that seem to have made the squandering of opportunity a goal.

Kix on 66 in Tucumcari is indicative of how this community is being transformed.

When you roll into Tucucmari from the west there is no indication that this is a community ripe with passionate optimism or enthusiasm about the future. The highway,  old U.S. 66, is lined with empty and vandalized motels and truck stops, and overgrown foundations. The surprisingly modern and expansive convention center parking lot is peppered with weeds growing through the cracks. In the historic business district the collapse of a building necessitated closure of a street, vacant lots between buildings hint of what once was, and there are empty store fronts on every street. Simply put, there is ample evidence to support a rather sobering statistic – the population has dropped almost 16% since 2,000.

Not quite as obvious is the evidence that this community is still vibrant, that it is still looking toward toward the future with eager anticipation and even vision. Three historic motels along the Route 66 corridor, one of which is in need of extensive refurbishment, recently sold to investors that have relocated to Tucumcari. The state of the art Tucumcari Bio Energy Company is about to commence production. This coming week a new restaurant will open. During my visit I enjoyed an open air dinner and lively conversation with fifty people from Norway, clients of a company that now includes an overnight stay in Tucumcari with each Route 66 tour. An event that centers on touring the area by bicycle this fall is under development, and is already attracting interest from  enthusiasts from Texas as well as New Mexico and Colorado.  At a meeting of the city commissioners, there was not one public comment that contained a complaint without suggestion of a solution.

I was in town to teach but as it turned out, I also was a student. David Brenner, owner of the Roadrunner Lodge (a formerly abandoned and vandalized 1960’s motel that is now a destination for Route 66 enthusiasts)  had facilitated sponsorship of my presentation on the utilization of heritage tourism as a component in the creation of an integrated economic development plan, and as a tool in community revitalization, with the Tucumcari Quay County Chamber of Commerce, Tucumcari Economic Development Corporation, and Tucumcari Main Street initiative.  In addition to the presentation where I shared a summary of successes in Pontiac, Illinois, Galena, Kansas, and Cuba, Missouri, and outlined ways the community could capitalize on its heritage, I also introduced Steve LeSueur of My Marketing Designs. LeSueur’s company is producing the Jim Hinckley’s America: A Trek Along Route 66 video series, and is developing the Promote Route 66 initiative utilizing the Promote Kingman template.

The Q & A session was spirited and lively. It was also inspirational and educational. These community leaders are well aware of Tucumcari’s history but they are looking toward the future. I confirmed this when speaking before the Rotary Club, attending the city commissioners meeting latter that day, and at an informal reception with the owners of the Blue Swallow Motel, their friends, and the president of the Route 66 Association of New Mexico.

Rounding out my visit and exploratory tour of Tucumcari was the weekly Jim Hinckley’s America Facebook live program. This episode took place at Kix on 66, a great place for breakfast and a living time capsule. Guests on the program were Steve LeSueur, Melissa Beasley, president of the Route 66 Association of New Mexico, and KC Keefer, producer of the Unoccupied Route 66 video series as well as promotional videos for the city of Tucumcari.

To say the very least, my visit to Tucumcari was educational and inspirational. It was also sobering and even a bit depressing, especially when my thoughts turned toward another Route 66 community, a place where self serving factions, apathy, divisions, indifference, and obstruction negate opportunity as well as blunt the promise of bright future.